Tuesday, June 08, 2010

"Solipsistic, self-consumed, bottomless emotional vacuum"

I bumped into this fantastic short story written by David Foster Wallace, titled "The Depressed Person" (PDF link), via a link Srinivasan had shared as a Google Reader comment. I had read very little of Wallace before, and knew him chiefly through his fantabulous commencement speech at Kenyon college (about which I had written earlier). I knew he was hailed as a genius of sorts and (yet? consequently?) a severely depressed individual, but the depth of his understanding and attention to detail in this story absolutely blew me out of the water.

I'm very interested in depression because of the sheer mindfuck it is (!) : a bunch of fucking chemicals are out of balance in your head, and poof! It doesn't matter where you are, who you are with, what you have accomplished or what you do, life is hell. It's hard to keep a straight face when phrases like "aim in life" or "ambition" or even "Happiness" are thrown about, when you know that a trivial chemical imbalance can radically deform the very lens with which you view the world. Forget about viewing the world, even the "you" in the last sentence won't be well defined!

The story does have its share of irritating features (the 'child of divorce' cliche, somewhat boring asides, an unconventional sentence structure that grates in as many places as it piques interest,...) but it is amazing in more ways than I can describe, and some ideas and lines were too disturbingly, chillingly close for comfort:

- the idea of "principle" morphing from being a tool of order, guidance and closure to one of chaos, torture and unfulfilledness; whether inflicted by others or by oneself.

- "who now lived in all manner of different cities and whom the depressed person often had not laid eyes on in years and years, and whom she called late in the evening, long-distance, for badly needed sharing and support and just a few well-chosen words to help her get some realistic perspective on the day's despair and get centered and gather together the strength to fight through the emotional agony of the next day, and to whom, when she telephoned, the depressed person always apologized for dragging them down or coming off as boring or self-pitying or repellent or taking them away from their active, vibrant,  largely pain-free long-distance lives."

- "The depressed person confessed to her therapist that when she reached out long-distance to a member of her Support System she almost always imagined that she could detect, in the friend's increasingly long silences and/or repetitions of encouraging cliches, the boredom and abstract guilt people always feel when someone is clinging to them and being a joyless burden. The depressed person confessed that she could well imagine each "friend" wincing now when the telephone rang late at night, or during the conversation looking impatiently at the clock or directing silent gestures and facial expressions communicating her boredom and frustration and helpless entrapment to all the other people in the room with her, the expressive gestures becoming more desperate and extreme as the depressed person went on and on and on."

- The dark recollection of the dorm room pantomime

- and "as a legacy of that experience, she dreaded, more than almost anything, the thought of ever being someone you had to appeal silently to someone nearby to help you contrive an excuse to get off the phone with. The depressed person would implore each supportive friend to tell her the very moment she (i.e., the friend) was getting bored or frustrated or repelled or felt she (i.e., the friend) had other more urgent or interesting things to attend to, to please for God's sake be utterly candid and frank and not spend one moment longer on the phone than she was absolutely glad to spend. The depressed person knew perfectly well, of course,  she assured the therapist;' how such a request could all too possibly be heard not as an invitation to get off the telephone at will but actually as a needy, manipulative plea not to get off - never to get off- the telephone."

- "said that she felt she could support the depressed person's use of the word "vulnerable" more wholeheartedly than she could support the use of the word "pathetic," which word (i.e., "pathetic") struck the therapist as toxically self-hating and also somewhat manipulative, an attempt to protect oneself  against the possibility of a negative judgment by making it clear that one was already judging oneself far more negatively than any listener could have the heart to."

- "intruding on their functional and blissfully ignorantly joyful if somewhat shallow and unconscious lives and appealing shamelessly to their compassion" 

- "not being able to share the way it felt, what it actually felt like for the depressed person to be literally unable to share it, as for example if her very life depended on describing the sun but she were allowed to describe only shadows on the ground"

- "Her apologies for burdening these friends during daylight hours at their workplaces were elaborate, vociferous, and very nearly constant, as were her expressions of gratitude to the Support System for just Being There for her"

- "the depressed person's emotional agony had so completely overwhelmed her vestigial defense mechanisms that whenever a member of her Support System finally said that she was dreadfully sorry but she absolutely MUST to get off the telephone, the primal instinct for sheer emotional survival now drove the depressed person to swallow every last tattered remnant of pride and to beg shamelessly for two or even just one more minute of the friend's time and attention,"

- "when she got quiet and centered and looked deep within, she could neither feel nor identify any feelings for the therapist as a person"

- "And thus that although the depressed person had had agonizing feelings aplenty since the therapist's suicide, these feelings appeared to be all and only for herself, i.e., for her loss, her abandonment, her grief, her trauma and pain and primal affective survival. And that this terrifying set of realizations, instead of awakening in her any feelings of compassion, empathy, or Other-directed grief for the therapist ...these realizations seemed merely to have brought up in the depressed person still more feelings about herself."

- the idea of a "toxic or manipulative self-hatred", and the act of recognizing it for what it was was itself declared to be a manipulative, desperate, "unable-to-face-the-truth" cowardice

- "her capacity for basic human empathy and compassion. She was asking sincerely, the depressed person said, honestly, desperately: what kind of person could seem to feel nothing- _nothing_ - for anyone but herself? What terms might be used to describe and assess such a solipsistic, self-consumed, bottomless emotional vacuum and sponge as she now appeared to herself to  be?"

As I said, mindblowing. 



wanderlust said...

The bits you put out here are really, really mindblowing.

Anon said...

Picking out just one of the excerpts, I would like to say that a person's death/suicide is only grief for the people around him, who were dependent on him, whether for emotional, financial or whatever kind of support. This should be normal, for it is pointless feeling grief for a dead person. We should've felt grief for the person when they were alive and tried to help them with their problems, or if they were keeping their problems to themselves, nothing much we could've done anyway.

People cry and grieve when a person dies. Are they crying for the person who died or for themselves, since they lost a loved one? Suicide, above all, is a selfish act.

Karthik said...

That commencement speech is a doozy.

An audio transcript is available now.

KVM said...

Glad you liked it! Those struck me quite hard, too.

KVM said...

Uh, I'm not sure I agree with you about it being pointless to feel grief for a dead person. A vast majority of what we undergo, especially emotional states, are eminently pointless. That doesn't mean we should discard them from consideration or attempt to calculate when it is 'worth' grieving.

I don't also agree with you that only dependent people feel grief, or that it is normal only for them to feel grief. It has to do with plain simple connectedness to another human's condition, and very little to do with what could or could not be done.

The question you ask - about the actual cause of grief - may be an interesting one to study, but as always the answer would be a combination of all possible answers, with the contributions of each varying from person to person. I think the point this story makes is that the protagonist is acutely aware of the fact that the causes for her are resting entirely with the impact of the event on herself, and her expectation that some of her grief should be impersonal and 'pure', without any of the business-like calculatedness you mention, is scarily not fulfilled.

I also disagree about your final conclusion. The idea of 'selfish' breaks down when someone is in such mental anguish that he wants no more of life itself. Even a routine variety of depression would result in multiple conflicting inner voices and cognitive dissonance; what to speak of a state when it so unbearable that the sufferer does not want to go on at all? What sense does it make to assign a label 'selfish' to such an act, when there is no one identifiable self or instinct of self-preservation to talk about?

A common argument is that suicide is 'selfish' because of the grief it causes among close relations. I think that is plain nonsense, peddled by judgmental people who have lived utterly unconscious lives and are too comfortable in their niches to be bothered by the realities of depression. It is just another manifestation of the just-world fallacy, where a rich man in a car declares that a crippled beggar is being "selfish" because he doesn't run a marathon to provide for his family.

KVM said...

Wow, thanks! It's a bit hard to follow, though. I always prefer text when its non-trivial stuff like this..

ramya said...

wow, that's a lot of words.

i'll put forth a simple case here.

this guy in his early 20s. he's got a good job, he's had a happy
childhood, got a nice bunch of friends, great family,  everything's
going just fine. but slowly and gradually he starts withdrawing from
everything and everyone around him. he is alarmed at the way he reacts
to things and is confused because he cannot understand what's happening
to him. he tries to talk to friends about it, but he is unable to put
into words his mental state, his anguish. each time he is faced with the
question - why? why are you depressed? he wishes he knew. he is ravaged
by guilt and embarrassment.  he tries but finds no answers. the trouble
runs far deeper than the "low on confidence" remark that the therapist
puts it down to. 

a lot of people do not understand that people
suffering from depression might be as clueless as people around them as
to what's happening to him. in their case, suicide is often a last
resort to get away from the torture. there is a deep-rooted fear of
society as well ("people will think i'm crazy").  in fact, they might not
even be conscious of what they're doing. i do not think a depressed
person commits suicide intentionally - to spite someone or to put their loved ones
through a lifetime of misery. it is perhaps to end the pain of an intensity that
a normal person cannot even imagine.

i believe with the right
kind of treatment, depression can be managed (if not cured).  it seems
there are many questions to be answered.